Les Marshak:

From WABC’s Star Search To ‘Today’ On NBC

by Scott Benjamin

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Les Marshak on the air at Musicradio WABC
1969

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Les in 2005
(photos courtesy Les Marshak)

 

After five years at Radio NY Worldwide – a huge commercial shortwave operation – and at WRFM locally, in 1969 Les Marshak wanted to come home to Musicradio77 WABC. 

Famed WABC night air personality Scott Muni called to formally notify Les that he had won the station’s Star Search air personality contest in 1961, when Les was a student at Columbia University. 

Soon, Les was assisting Scott during his appearances at Freedomland in the Baychester section of the Bronx and reading high school sports scores on his show. A short time later he became best friends with WABC air personality Cousin Bruce Morrow – a relationship that has continued to this day. Les worked with Brucie on his shows at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. He also served as WABC’s Youth Director. 

In 1969 Les applied to be a summer ABC relief staff announcer. 

 “I admired and followed the 27 staff announcers that were the signature of ABC,” he said in a May 19, 2021 phone interview with Musicradio77.com. 

That roster included Fred Foy, who had been the announcer for “The Lone Ranger” and by then was the announcer for Dick Cavett’s ABC television show, and Joel Crager, who for years was the voice for E.F. Hutton, the ABC Movie of the Week and Ivory Soap. 

“I didn’t know where this would lead to, but since most of my staff assignments were on local radio, it couldn’t hurt to get closer to my dream to be back on WABC,” Les explained. 

The staff announcers had a variety of assignments: WABC, WABC-FM, WABC-TV Channel 7, the American Contemporary Radio Network and ABC television. 

ABC staff announcer Milton Cross – who was best-known for his work since 1931 on the weekly Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts – walked by as Les was preparing for his audition. 

Les was struggling with a “classical music script for WABC-FM, which was then playing classical and jazz.” 

Mr. Cross said, “Could I help you with the pronunciation?” 

.Les remarked, “This was the iconic voice that my dad listened to on the radio on Saturday afternoon.” 

Crager told Musicradio77.com in 2006 that the first four years he worked there he always called him, “Mr. Cross,” noting that Milton was “very charismatic.”

However, in a 2006 phone interview with Musciradio77.com, former CNBC anchor Ted David, who was an ABC Page in the late 1960s, noted that Milton “came and went and did his job as though he was the janitor or the mailman."

With help from “Mr. Cross,” Les landed the job, and got noticed by 77 WABC program director Rick Sklar, who made him the Sunday morning 2 to 5 o’clock air personality.

One of his staff announcer duties was doing the newscasts on WABC during the final weeks of Charlie Greer’s overnight show.

After Charlie left in August, Roby Yonge was assigned to the overnight show which included six live commercials per hour for the sponsor, Denison's, the mean’s clothier in Union, New Jersey.

Roby Yonge’s WABC career was in decline after he was moved off the Monday through Saturday 1 to 3 p.m. show in early January after a year in that slot.

However, after being informed that his contract wasn’t being renewed, Roby discussed the “Paul Is Dead” rumors about Beatle Paul McCartney on Tuesday morning, October 21, 1969, and Sklar summoned Les to the station, had a security guard remove Roby from the studio and had Les complete that show. He continued on the overnights until Jay Reynolds arrived in February 1970.

A month later Les was on the air at WPIX-FM, which led to many “major ramp-ups.”

Since Les is the most proficient archivist this side of  Doonesbury  cartoonist Garry Trudeau – he still has the telegram informing him about being selected as the WABC Star Search winner - Robyn Stecher, a vice president at Don Buchwald & Associates,  his agent, recommended  that he do a “museum piece for all his  followers.” 

 “Les Marshak’s Career Highlights” (21-mintesu, 29-seconds) was posted at YouTube in 2019 and has footage on him announcing the Tony Awards, the Academy Awards, the Emmys, holiday shows, commercials for NBC Sports, and Sam Goody’s, and the regional Emmy-nominated report he did for WNBC-TV New York in 2008 on the videos he had of New York Yankees players and announcer Mel Allen departing the ballpark from the 1950s. 

There also is a photograph of him standing along with other production crew members and the president and first lady from the January 2001 farewell party for Bill Clinton, which featured a performance by Fleetwood Mac. 

Currently, his highest-profile gig is as the announcer for the “Today” show on NBC. In September he will celebrate 15 years there. 

It is Les, via a digital recording, who introduces Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb each weekday morning on “Today.” Previously, he had been the announcer on “Weekend Today” and got the Monday through Friday assignment after they auditioned a raft of voice-over announcers based in New York City. 

He also announces six annual holiday shows combined for PBS and NBC. 

As a result of the pandemic, an NBC technical engineer came to his weekend home in Southhampton, Long Island about a week before the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and “installed a huge amount of gear in my sound studio” so he could announce the parade remotely.  

Les related, “It was quite overwhelming, but it worked beautifully.” 

He said the PBS National Memorial Day Concert, which he has been announcing since the late 1990s, is “emotionally rewarding,” since it “gives a huge focus on so many thousands who lost their lives and whose lives were changed dramatically defending our country. It is beautifully produced and directed.” 

As for voice-over work on commercials, Les said with the pandemic subsiding that he hopes he will again get some spots for Broadway productions. The first major show that he did a commercial for was “The Wiz” in 1977. 

However, he said that the voice-over market over the recent years has changed, as there is more work being assigned to people who are not members of the Screen Actors Guild. 

For example, Les said the late Fred Collins, the famed NBC staff announcer, was always working. 

Collins reportedly over the years was a spokesman for 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. 

Said Les, “There are no longer any stars” in the voice-over profession.

Regarding radio, Les noted that over generations some formats become obsolete and the ultimate result is there is more radio. Soap operas gave way to Top 40 AM, which was overtaken by FM stereo. Sports talk blossomed, which filled part of the void on AM. About 20 years ago the new innovations were the Sirius and XM satellite channels and over the recent years podcasting has grown.

Said Les, “it is not the way it was when you took your AM/FM transistor radio to the beach. But radio today is vibrant.”

Last September, after a 46-year hiatus, Cousin Brucie  returned to 77 WABC with a Saturday night show.

Les said he got to meet in person recently with Brucie for the first time in a while, and that “he is loving the new show.”

“I think he feels more freedom since he is able to talk more than the way it was under the format years ago at WABC,” he added.

Air personality Ron Lundy used to open his Musicradio77 WABC midday show by referring to New York as, “The greatest city in the world.”

Following the pandemic, can the “greatest city in the world” again become “the greatest city in the world?”

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in February that “The Old New York Won’t Come Back.”

“The closed shops in and around train stations and office buildings, they’re not coming back. The empty towers—people say, “Oh, they can become luxury apartments!’ Really? Why would people clamor for them, so they can have a place in the city and be near work? But near work has changed. So you can be glamorous? Many of the things that made Manhattan glamorous—shows, restaurants, clubs, museums, the opera—are wobbling,” she stated.

Les disagreed.

He remarked, “New York is a city that is unique in the world.  You have Broadway, the museums and Wall Street.”

“It is very different now,” Les said. “If you walk along Madison Avenue or the East Side or West Side, of Manhattan about 80 percent of the retail stores are closed.”

 “People may be initially reluctant to walk in a big crowd,” he explained. “But eventually, they will come back. The tourists will want to be here.”

 


Les Marshak on WABC: October, 1969
(aircheck courtesy Les Marshak)

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